Bioethics Blogs

The raging Ebola epidemic in West Africa—will the key lessons be learned?

by Arthur Caplan, Ph.D.

Ebola, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is out of control in West Africa.  The disease, which is transmitted by contact with contaminated blood or body fluids, or by close contact with a dead body infected with the virus, has killed more than 1100 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria.  The number of dead is most likely higher since people were dying in rural villages without being counted. At least another 1000 persons are infected.  The world faces the worst outbreak of this horrific disease since 280 people died when the Ebola first appeared in humans near the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976.  The overriding ethical question Ebola raises is how did this epidemic get out of control?

According to both Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), one of the leading not-for-profit non-governmental medical aid organizations in the world, and a young worker who recently visited me after coming off the front lines fighting the Ebola outbreak, this tragedy should not have occurred.  Worse, arguing about topics such as who should get the miniscule supply of experimental drugs available to treat victims or vaccines to prevent the future spread of Ebola obscures the lessons that need to be learned to contain this outbreak and prevent future ones.

The young public health worker told me that the initial response to the outbreak in Guinea was simply pathetic.  International agencies and organizations, afraid of offending local officials and governments who were in denial or slow to respond, said almost nothing about the initial inadequate local response.  Neither, despite all the coverage of Ebola, have the media.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.